Why Strike Debt

Debt. Housing. Education. Healthcare. Consumer. Municipal. Debt

7 notes

I am walking away from my student loans

I’m 27 years old.  For as long as I could remember, I was told that college was the path to success, the ONLY path to success.  When I was in high school I began to question this and explore other options, but I was shamed and guilt tripped by my family until I agreed to go to college.

I flunked out of one college and tried another.  And another.  And another.  I have been enrolled in 4 different colleges.  Every time I signed another FAFSA form, every time I filled out another class schedule, every time I moved my stuff into another dorm room, I knew, deep down, in my heart, in my blood cells, that this was wrong for me.

College was wrong for me in the same way that a woman is wrong for a gay man.  College was wrong for me in the same way a fish tank is the wrong environment for an elephant.  It’s nothing personal, colleges are nice enough places with a lot of really great people, but it was deeply incompatible with who I am.  I spent years stuffing down who I really am.

Now I know.  I actually found my calling - it’s direct action, public service, weirdo do-gooding.  I’ve never been happier or more fulfilled in my entire life.  But my “career” doesn’t really earn any money.  I accept donations, I have a pay pal button.  And that’s enough.

One of my student loan providers has begun calling my family members (and one family friend) to try and track me down.  I don’t have a mailing address anymore.  I returned their phone call and told them, politely, that as I now believe education to be a fundamental human right, like food, water, shelter, and healthcare, I do not recognize my debts as legitimate and I have no plans to pay them.

I don’t imagine this will go over well with my family.  I am not happy about the idea of them receiving more phone calls, but I’m not going to pay $4000 or $6000 or $10,000 just to end the phone calls.  I could do much better things with that kind of money, if I had it.  Whatever money I do get, I use to feed people and spread kindness.

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Response from Hospital Senior VP of Operations after I sent my letter. See: March 15, Sarah Lewis

I submitted my story on March 15th. Here is the response from the VP of Operations who is listed in the bioethics brochure as the head of the Bioethics Comittee. I know I shouldn’t take it personally, I know it is about profit and institutional protection. But the thing is, I do take it personally.

Dear Ms. Lewis”

I would like to thank you for your correspondence dated March 6,2013. All appropriate parties at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital have read the letter. At this time the Chariman of the Bioethics Committee has determined your concerns with pricing are not an appropriate topic for this Committee to review. ( note: Okay, if he is listed on the brochure as head of the committee, is this not a bit like Oz behind the curtain? Also, says they’ll get back within 48 hrs. They did not.)

Here is the part that hurts. It is as if I am lying when I say that I was told I could self pay $1,500. 

Extensive call logs are kept within our price estimate department. Unfortunately, we have no record of you obtaining a price quote with that service. If you would like, you may apply for financial assistance by calling Amanda Burpee at (603)740-3234 or Christina Meehan at (603) 740-3342. I have attached an application for your convenience.

Sincerely, Daniel Dunn, Senior VP of Operations FACHE

Wentworth Douglass Hospital, Dover, New Hampshire.

I guess it is akin to living in New York (my hometown) and seeing a homeless person on your corner every morning. At first you give them money, worry. Then, they become invisible, the reviled, “Other.”

In  a good mood I am grateful to be alive, grateful to have had treatment. In a bad mood the weight of the debt and the gouging is almost unbearable. 

7 notes

Cancer care bills. Gouging by hospital.

This is a letter I sent to the CEO of my local hospital. I had asked ror an ethics inquiry, as I think gouging is an ethical issue. No response. Then I copied this letter to the head of the bioethics comittee, my oncologists, the social worker, the financial aid people, a lawyer, Carl Elliot, a pioneering bioethicist at University of Minnesota (who I did correspond with), Jeffrey Young, a journalist for Huffpo Biz who wrote an article about my being turned down by my insurance company for a pre-existing condition, and Chris Hayes at Up. Nobody has responded. I feel it is unethical to gouge a self pay patient. My life would be different without the medical debt in that I would proceed with follow up care. I have tried, but failed, as this letter illustrates. We need Single Payer. Anything less is criminal.


Sarah Lewis

March 6, 2013


Sarah Lewis

59 Silver Street

Dover, NH 03820


Mr. Gregory Walker

President and CEO

Wentworth Douglass Hospital

789 Central Avenue

Dover, NH 03820



Dear Mr. Walker:


I am very grateful for the treatment I received from my wonderful oncologists (Ortiz/Metcalf), and everyone on The Seacoast Cancer Center staff.  But here is the thing, I am too tired to fight being gouged on a CT scan that is priced way over what I had been told it would be as a self-pay patient.  I talked to someone named Sue who led me to believe it would be affordable. I naively tried to pay by check before going in for the scan. Nope.  Can’t do that when mystery billing is on the agenda.


My friends and family were pleased that I was following up, having a scan. Dr. Ortiz said it was important to come regularly, that he’d perhaps be able to treat something we notice before it has spread. But I had put it off due to finances. I felt so grateful that I could pay a reasonable rate as an uninsured cancer patient. So, forgive me if after spending my initial treatment in the autumn of 2010 fighting Assurant Health who denied my claims based upon a pre-existing condition, (and racking up $16,000 in fees to WDH now in collections) for having no energy left.  It is profiting from the sick. It is shameful. I asked for a bioethics consult because it seems to me an ethical matter. It isn’t about the bill, the bills are conjured from thin air. (See: Discrepancy in Medicare and Private Insurance billing, discounts for big insurance companies).


Today we picked up birth control pills for my daughter at Rite Aid. Lo and behold there was no charge. A public health initiative.  I am my only public health initiative—my own advocate.  But I am weary to the bone, and I feel abandoned and gouged. I don’t have $9,000. I do have $1,500 if that is acceptable.


Thank you.


6 notes

Big hopes, Big dreams, Big Debt

I always paid my debts.  Before I decided to go to college, I consolidated all my credit card debts into a personal loan my father helped me get and paid it off in one year.  I was debt free, for a while.  My father paid for my undergraduate degree and for the first year of my master’s program.  Then I was on my own.  That was okay, though, because by then I had been filing my own tax returns and was financially independent, so I qualified for financial aid.  I also worked for the college as a Graduate Assistant and that got me a monthly stipend and tuition waiver.  I lived a frugal life throughout my graduate programs.  I ate mostly rice, popcorn, spaghetti, bread, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Meat was off the menu since it is more expensive than bananas, apples and broccoli.  I was pretty thin all through college.  I was really happy, though, because I loved learning, I loved teaching, and I believed that what I was doing was good for our communities, our society.  Progress and innovation comes on the heels of a good education, after all.  I was part of the “good education” team to help our next generation innovate and create the next great gadget.

As I said, I lived frugally, but I still had to use credit cards to make ends meet.  I did have to buy clothes once in a while.  I needed a haircut sometimes, too—although, I admit to just cutting the split ends with my office scissors most of the time.  And yes, sometimes, I just splurged and bought myself something I probably shouldn’t have, like the electric piano so I could get back to playing in my spare time.  Oh well, at least I finally learned to play “Moonlight Sonata”—that must be good for something.

After a few years of graduate work, though, I stopped getting free financial aid—I maxed out and had to resort to student loans through the government.  When I finally finished my Ph.D., I had about $98,000 in student loan debts and about $3,000 in credit card debts.  I did not think this was too unreasonable because I anticipated getting a good job in academia doing what I loved, teaching, and making a decent income that would allow me to pay off my debt in 3 to 4 years—I planned on living as frugally as I had been to pay it off.  I knew that if I made $50,000 a year, I could live off of $30,000 and use the rest to pay my debt.  No problem because, as a graduate student, I was use to living off of $15,000 a year.

Then came the first recession.  Yes folks, this recession did not just start 5 years ago.  It started more like 20 years ago.  Most people did not notice what was happening because those of us in academia live in some weird kind of other dimension from the rest of the nation.  However, this is what has been happening to your public school system starting with kindergarten and going all the way to university.  You see, public education is a huge drain on the government and many people do not like to pay for someone else’s education.  So, budget cuts to public education ensued.  Mostly, higher education was left untouched for a while, but then the hammer hit.  When the first wave of budget cuts came, the university turned to its graduate students to fill those classrooms, both as students and as low wage teachers.  When the administrators saw how much that helped their budgets, they started highering more and more part-time teachers and fewer and fewer full-time teachers.  When a department would lose three full-timers to retirement or relocation, they would only be allowed to higher one full-timer and then 4 to 6 part-timers would be highered to fill in the rest.  This is the workforce I became part of.  My big dream of getting out of debt was, initially, put off until I could land that dream full-time gig, which I believed I would get in no more than 5 years, tops.  Afterall, I had jumped through every hoop; I was published, I had a research agenda, I did postdoc work at a super respectable private university, I even taught over seas.  What didn’t I do to pad my resume?

Fast forward 10 years.  I’m still teaching part-time.  I have no benefits, my $98,000 student loan is now $101,000. and my credit card debt is at $35,000.  I have no savings, my retirement, after working 10 years as a teacher in higher education is at about $17,000.  I pay for my own medical insurance, I drive a 20 year old car because I can’t afford the monthly payments on a new car, or the insurance, or the registration that accompany a new car.

I also have two kids.  Even though my plans for paying off my debt failed, I would not allow debt to control all my life decisions.  So, I willing brought kids into my life, knowing full well that it would only worsen my fiscal problems.  My husband and I divorced a few years ago, and I think our mounting debt and the stress it caused us is partly or mostly to blame for our failed marriage.  We have no money for their future college education and I know that, as of today, if my employment situation does not change, I will not be able to help them with tuition.  They will be forced to get financial aid and then student loans when the free aid runs out, which it will.  They will have to depend on credit cards to make ends meet.  They will have debt in the amount of $50,000 or more by the time they are 24 years young.

I refuse to allow my kids to fall prey to this broken and destructive monetary system we are living in.  We have decided to leave the U.S., and even abandon some of our debt in order to allow our children and ourselves to live a good life, a life without the burden and enslavement of debt.  We never wanted to be rich.  I never imagined myself in a big house with a big yard and all new appliances, granite counters, tile floors, etc.  I am still frugal and modest in my lifestyle, but even a frugal life style seems to be out of reach for us.  This is not the kind of world I want my kids to live in.  It must change.  I leave you all with a stanza from William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

3 notes

Drowning in debt, drama

Economic struggle has been a near constant presence in my life. Medical expenses began problems. I became responsible for paying for a brain surgery (thanks to my hydrocephalus diagnosis at 18 months old), which was performed when I was a minor, after my mother chose not to pay.

Subsequent treatment and surgeries during college for me to take out more student loans than planned. So, I’m still faced with a large student loan balance, made up of, mostly, medical bills.

My chosen field as a journalist hasn’t allowed for much expendable income. So, dealing with debt remained a problem. However, I began diligently working on it once my partner and I decided to buy a house.

My attempt at continuing to work on getting rid of debt were dashed when I lost my job. I’ve been unemployed for more than a year, which was exacerbated by my eventual breakup. The breakup included being illegally removed from the home, loss of my car and ending up in a homeless shelter.

My former partner allowed me to return to our home, but became violent. He had me evicted (after coercing me to sign a quit claim deed) in retaliation of his domestic violence arrest. I also became ineligible unemployment benefits after exhausting my federal benefit allotment.

I’m now living in an efficiency paid for with a domestic violence grant, receiving food stamps and have applied for a meager township grant, while I look for freelance writing work. Securing a job in the rural town (Freeport, Ill.), in which I live, is nearly impossible.

If I could be debt, I would, after paying for necessities, find a way to help community organizations and use travel as way of helping people in other countries.

3 notes

Follow the Right Path, Right To A Dead End

Followed all the “growing up rules”:

Stay out of trouble; go to college;  get a job, and one day you’ll retire and get a gold watch.

I even went one better:  I went into the military. 

I have student debt from an ivy league school, plus graduate school that I’ll never be able to pay off.  I am scraping by in the midwest, working 2-3 jobs at a time, which is putting me into bigger and bigger tax troubles. There are no good jobs here.  The good jobs go to the same few people who keep hiring each other.  Applying for jobs on the internet is a joke… where are all of these submissions going? And the icing on the cake is, companies are not hiring people who have a load of debt.  Unbelievable.  It’s unfortunate to say, but I could have been a bum or a middle school dropout and still ended up where I am now.  The only good news I can think of, is I own nothing, so no foreclosures.

As a veteran, I do get a flag for my coffin.  Wonder if they’ll put a lien on it?

9 notes

My Debt Story

imageI recently donated my status to strike debt because I have a theatre degree that at the end of my studies costs me $101,000 dollars. It hangs over my head and causes me not to be able to get a job, not to be able to have good credit and not to be able to be in a position where I can have success rather than failure in life. I’m constantly trying to figure out a way out of it, and short of becoming permanently disabled, I most likely will have this debt for the rest of my life. I would like to have my debts erased because I believe that our government should be bailing out the American people, and not the bankers and businesses who are creating the problem in the first place. Give us a non-monetary way to pay for school if the economy is so damn important. Give us a Works Project Administration way to pay it off. Give us a way we can make a voice for everyone. Last time I looked, we vote people into office, but because we don’t have the time to lobby the government, we are put in the poorhouse by people who buy and sell our debt. It’s a shame. I hate it. I don’t believe that they should get away with it. I support what you are doing, this has been more of a rant than a story, but there you go. 

2 notes

One Great Night


One Great Night (Dec. 8, 2012)

There is dirty little secret about making donations to charity: it’s fun.


On December 8, 2012 thirty nine friends from all corners of Los Angeles got together in Redondo Beach to celebrate their awareness of this secret.  The cast of characters was a rag-tag assembly of twenty-somethings of comfortable yet humble means but eager and willing charitable instincts.  Everyone chipped in $10 at the door as well as a unique gift to be sold back to the guests during the live auction part of the evening – all in the name of good fun and good intentions.


Although even more importantly than the gag gifts and Hamiltons, everyone was also asked to come ready to make a public address in support of their favorite charity.  Because unlike your parent’s charity events, the guests at this party would choose the recipient of their donations by voting on it, together, after the party is underway.  Eleven brave souls came up to the “podium” (read: 3 inch brick base of the fireplace) and made remarkably well researched and equally remarkably emotional monologues about the causes, people, and organizations that work to improve our world.


Although only one would be selected, those 11 organizations were:

I.A.V.A. (supports American veterans of Iraq & Afghanistan)

Special Olympics (supports athletes with intellectual disabilities)

Rolling Jubilee (purchases and forgives medical debt)

Urban Compass (supports after school programs for at risk youth)

Sex & Money (supports efforts to end sex trafficking)

Dan Marino Foundation (supports autism research)

Charlize Theron Africa Outreach (supports women’s empowerment)

Good Shepherd Shelter (supports victims/families of domestic abuse)

C.A.S.A. (supports volunteer advocacy for abused children)

Fair Trade LA (supports the promotion of fair trade in Los Angeles)

Complete Cambodia (supports land mine removal in SE Asia)


After wonderful speeches of support, soul searching, and two rounds of voting; the revelers/donors chose to support Rolling Jubilee.  Although there are likely countless organizations worthy of support, it gave the members of the “One Great Night” party great pride to send their support to the men and women of Rolling Jubilee to continue their work of erasing medical debt to improve both our financial system and the everyday lives of those fellow citizens battling with this burden.


Keep up the good work, Rolling Jubilee.


Sincerely – The Crew from One Great Night

1 note

Accidentally Defaulted on my College Loans While Studying Abroad


A year after college I decided to get my Masters in London. I thought I had deferred all my loans, but when I returned to New York, I discovered that the paperwork hadn’t cleared, and in the intervening two years I had defaulted on $30,000 worth of debt. Suddenly I had all these insurmountable barriers. I couldn’t apply to PhD programs even though I was the top student in my class. I couldn’t even get a lease for an apartment. It seemed hopeless, like I was already being punished for a mistake I hadn’t understood I was making. So, completely overwhelmed, I just stopped paying all my debts. Eight years later, I have learned to live pretty much off the grid. I have projects I work on that I’m proud of, an overall my life is OK, but I wish I could apply to a PhD program and pursue my actual talents.

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I don’t know where to turn at this point. I am able (right now) to pay my bills, but there seems no way I’ll ever dig myself out of the hole my debt has left me in. Medical expenses, student loans and poor financial decision making years ago have left me adrift.

I take heart in the knowledge that I’m not the only one and there are others who are in worse circumstances than I. Not only that, but I am grateful that folks like you are out in the world trying to help people who find themselves buried in debt. I look forward to a time, someday, when I might be able to help.